Calls to waive veto in cases of atrocities

During a Security Council meeting in New York in July, the Russian ambassador to the UN vetoes a draft resolution for establishing a tribunal to prosecute those responsible for shooting down flight MH17 AFP

Two initiatives urging countries on the United Nations Security Council to renounce voluntarily their veto in certain cases are unlikely to be accepted by the council's Permanent Members. But their backers believe they could make states think twice before exercising this power. 

This content was published on October 2, 2015 - 14:12
Rita Emch in New York,

France and Mexico launched a political declaration this week that calls for the Permanent Members – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – to waive their veto to block resolutions that aim at preventing or ending cases of mass atrocities such as genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. 

For its part, a Swiss-coordinated group of UN member states that operates under the acronym ACT (Accountability, Coherence, Transparency) presented a Code of Conduct with the same goal but a broader scope: it addresses not only the Permanent Members but all present and future Non-Permanent Members of the Council. 

More than 75 countries have signed the French-Mexican declaration, while 53 have committed themselves to the ACT code. 

No quick fix 

“We hope there will be more commitments to ensure that situations like the one in Syria disappear, where there are mass atrocities and the UN Security Council is paralysed by a veto,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. “The veto is not a privilege but a responsibility.” 

Fabius pointed out that France had already committed itself to not using its veto in the case of mass atrocities. It hoped others would follow. 

Although none of the other veto powers formally supports the initiative, Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch (HRW) says at the very least the French-Mexican initiative and ACT’s code will “raise the cost of the shameless use of the veto in situations of mass atrocities. Having these two initiatives out there will cause a counter-narrative to the use of the veto when preventing or ending mass atrocities are at issue.” 

Dicker, director of HRW’s International Justice Programme, admits the initiatives won’t “quickly resolve or eliminate an obstructive, shameless use of the veto as by Russia in the case of Syria”, but it was a “mid-term goal”. 

He added that the Council’s failure to act on Syria might in some way have backfired on veto-casting Permanent Members by “sparking broader support for both the French-Mexican and the ACT initiatives”. 

Growing support 

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said he was seeing growing support for the cause. “Every year a little more.” 

He added, however, that it would probably take a long time before the goal was reached of having all five Permanent Members on board. 

Asked by whether France’s support would help build some moral pressure, Burkhalter said: “Yes, that’s possible, but at the same time I think the discussion should remain rational. What we need is an understanding that it is absolutely not logical for the Security Council – whose main task is peace and security – not to prevent mass atrocities or put an end to them.” 

Kenneth Roth, head of HRW, said the veto should never be used “to defend an ally who is committing the kind of atrocities we see the Assad regime committing today against civilians who happen to live in opposition controlled areas”. 

Roth said blocking resolutions instead of mass murderers was simply not coherent with the Council’s main task. Ultimately it would be in everyone’s interest to realise that “in light of the Security Council’s paralysis, for instance in the case of Syria, the international community is increasingly calling into question the Council and its role, especially the role of the Permanent Members.”

Vetoes against Syrian resolutions

In the case of the conflict in Syria, Russia and China have used their veto four times to block action by the Security Council. Three times, they vetoed resolutions that dealt with threats of sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

Another resolution would have referred the conflict in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible crimes against humanity. Switzerland had been pushing for a referral of the Syria conflict to the ICC early on and had initiated a petition to that effect which was supported by more than 50 UN member states and handed to the Security Council in May 2013.

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Accountability, Coherence, Transparency

ACT is a cross-regional group of 27 small and mid-sized countries trying to enhance the accountability, coherence and transparency of the UN Security Council. 

ACT was launched in May 2013 and addresses the Security Council’s internal functioning and its relations to the broader UN membership. ACT presents concrete and pragmatic proposals to improve the working methods of the Council in its present composition. Switzerland acts as coordinator of the group.

ACT’s Code of Conduct will be officially launched on October 23 on the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. 

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